Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Monika Kalinowska and I’m the founder of Plant Circle, an online plant store for rare and tropical plants with headquarters in Berlin. I have started Plant Circle in 2017 after going through a burnout caused by my previous job in journalism.
Plant Circle is more than just a plant store. We are a sustainability and animal welfare-focused business. Our mission is to help protect the planet and animals by choosing plastic-free packaging, supporting animal rescue organizations, and planting trees around the world.
Just one year into our existence we took the first steps towards producing our stock via plant tissue culture. This is our contribution to cutting the supply chain down to the absolute minimum and having full control over how our plants are grown. Thanks to modern ways of propagation, we can produce high numbers of hard to come by plants, and eventually, offer them to our customers at much more affordable prices. This way we can avoid constantly importing plants from tropical countries and risking them being poached from their natural habitats. The last thing we want is to have a negative impact on the environment.
Since the first year, Plant Circle has been almost quadrupling revenue each year, now arriving at +/-100k a month in 2021.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started Plant Circle about 4 years ago out of a passion for plants, which came to life while I was suffering through burnout and anxiety disorder, caused by my previous job as a video journalist. I was working for an international news agency based in Berlin and spent most of my time traveling the world covering breaking news. As you can imagine, this lifestyle was not supportive of having any house plants at home, so the first thing I did after going on sick leave was to finally surround myself with them.
As I am an all-or-nothing person and don't know how to do something on a small scale, I turned my home into an urban jungle within the first couple of weeks. I immediately got frustrated though, about not being able to source the plants I saw on Instagram or Pinterest that I found beautiful and interesting. Everything that was offered then was very basic. On top of that, I also struggled to find beautiful and well-made accessories to go with my plants, which made me think there was a huge market gap, and that's how Plant Circle was born. I have never thought of myself as a business person, but this came to me so naturally.
First I thought Plant Circle would be a subscription service and I was trying to figure out how to pull it off. After giving it some thought, I decided it wasn't something that had potential, and instead decided to just go with a plant boutique with a very good selection of unusual plants and accessories. At that time I had a break from work and was exploring arts and crafts. I was an avid weaver and sold my work through Etsy and also taught weaving workshops. This experience introduced me to Berlin Kreativ Kollektiv which was a nonprofit organization with a focus on small creative businesses in Berlin. To be honest this was a lifesaver! Every person involved in this organization had something to offer and we often exchanged ideas or skills. It was an incredible experience to have such a beautiful support network of fellow female creative business owners.
I did not have any experience in business, nor education in that direction, no help from family, and no savings in my account. When Plant Circle came to life I was in between things and open to anything happening.
Learn to delegate and don't be afraid to hire people if you can. You can't be the best at everything, and eventually, something has to give. You have to be able to recognize it and delegate whatever you’re not good at to your employees or freelancers.
After launching Plant Circle at a pop-up store, and making the best sales out of the 30 participants there, I knew I was on to something. Then I opened my first brick-and-mortar shop and almost sold out all the stock on the first day. I knew then, that this was the right thing for me. This, together with the positive feedback I was getting online, the rapidly growing social media following, and media interest had assured me this business had potential.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Plant Circle brand was born on Instagram. I started the account while temporarily living in Australia without the intention of selling and without a clear idea of what the business behind it would be. I simply loved plants and would post and repost pictures of them. After returning to Europe I went to stay at my grandma's farm for a couple of weeks where I built my first website and bought my first stock using my credit card’s allowance. My family helped me transport the plants to Berlin on a small trailer after a few weeks when I found a shared studio space where I could put it all in. At that time I was a part of a local nonprofit that was founded by and for small creative business owners, which provided me with a huge support network of like-minded people. Without them, I would not have known how to register my business in Germany, especially since my German was close to nonexistent.
To launch the business, I decided to take part in my first pop-up store in Berlin, and also to run workshops next to it. It was a huge success! Shortly after I launched my online store and had perhaps 10 sales a week during that first year (September-December 2017). I had no idea what I was doing, but looking back I don't think I could have done it better.
It's better done than perfect. Just do it, and you’ll figure it out on the go.
In late 2017/ early 2018 I saw Plant Circle get a lot of traction thanks to the workshops and events that I was running, such as ‘How NOT to kill your plants', ‘DIY Terrariums’, or plant swap parties. I got quite a lot of publicity thanks to these, especially ‘How NOT to kill your plants’, as this event went viral on FB and had over 200k people interested in it. This brought the attention of local TV, radio, newspapers, and some magazines. In hindsight, running the workshops was the best idea that I had and it kick-started the business.
In the first year of the business, I only had occasional help from freelancers with packing orders or taking some shifts at the shop. Managing the online shop, sourcing plants, listing products, and product photography, running social media and producing content, customer support, bookkeeping, and running workshops was all done by me.
The best advice I got was that it's better done than perfect and I always stuck to it. Just do it, and you’ll figure it out on the go.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Even before Plant Circle existed as a business, there was the Instagram account, and I had built quite a following before I even started selling any products. This helped a lot! Also finding what worked for me visually, creating a specific esthetic which later became our signature look, our brand.
We also had a handful of great collaborations that brought our business to the next level. Unfortunately, I can't recommend influencer marketing to anyone as the majority of our efforts in that area was a waste of time, but we were lucky with a few people that were not only a joy to work with, but we're as passionate as us, and that made some waves.
At the start, I ran our social media and took the pictures all by myself. Sure it saved me some cash but compromised the quality. Only once I hired our social media manager and the in-house photographer did things blossomed. Our style became our brand that everybody recognizes these days. Working with a team gives me room to be creative and focus on other important issues, but also brings so much structure and strategy. I think the more you narrow your field of expertise the better results you can achieve. As soon as you can, afford to start hiring people that specialize in very specific areas and let them do their job.
I was also very lucky with the people I have on my team. They understood what Plant Circle is about from the start, and their language was PC's language. There was no need to re-learn anything. Together we grew so much, and I am ever so proud of the content that we produce!
The second major factor was good SEO. Thanks to our efforts around writing elaborate and SEO-friendly product descriptions, google ranks us pretty high on the searches. Do not underestimate the power of google! The majority of our business comes from the search on keywords and not from social media.
Strong email list / weekly newsletter
Last but not least we have a strong subscriber list. For a year now we are sending out a weekly newsletter that grows so fast! Additionally, everybody gets a discount for their second purchase and this has been a great success in bringing customers back to our store.
What we could improve, and where we are lacking extremely, is advertising both on google and social media. From the beginning, we had always grown organically and our sales were purely organic. Only now have we started outsourcing our marketing efforts (ads) and seriously investing in that area. After speaking to so many founders I cannot believe I am getting around to it so late! Just imagine where we’d be now.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are currently going through a bit of a rough patch as an aftermath of the months-long lockdown. I believe everybody in e-commerce in Germany sees the drop in traffic just as much as we do, which is keeping us on our toes atm. We are also observing the market changing rapidly and are still trying to make sense of the new situation. It's an exciting, and also scary, time to be a business owner during a pandemic. While our online store is doing good, the physical store sadly is not. Our sales are happening 95-99% online, whereas the numbers used to be 60-40.
Despite the uncertain times, we are continuously producing and releasing plants from our production, as well as designing a collection of signature accessories. Our plan for the near future is to build new categories in our shop and expand onto lifestyle goods. Just a few months ago we launched our daughter brand, Kali, which focuses purely on home goods. Our first products are sustainable canola wax candles and artisanal soaps. With this brand we would like to reach a wider audience as Plant Circle is limited only to the European Union due to plant import regulations, but Kali on the other hand has the potential to become an international brand.
We are about to delegate a part of our marketing efforts to an external business, which should make our ads game much stronger. Up until now we didn't pay much attention to it and only grew organically.
Nevertheless, the future is exciting. As we are headed toward working mainly with our own produced stock, whether it’s plants or accessories, this will make us much more independent and sustainable than we could ever be. Also, this will make the margins much more inciting.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
My biggest issue from the start of running Plant Circle has always been financed. I have never been good at keeping books and this has always added stress to the already stressful job of being the CEO and founder. We also did not have the best of luck with the accountants we’ve worked with, and continuously have troubles due to their lack of expertise or insufficient support. If I can advise you something, it would be to find a reliable and supportive accountant that will understand exactly how your business works and will be able to support you through the period of growth. Our first accountant couldn't handle our growth, the second was not familiar with eCommerce, and the third couldn’t support us as much as we needed.
My second issue has been customer support. I wasn’t good at it myself, as I tended to take everything way too personally. What I have been told, and what I will pass onto you, is that you have to distance yourself from the business and put away your ego. Save your responses and work with templates- this will allow you to stay cool and tempered. Don't get emotional, and if something makes you angry, always sleep on it before you reply.
Everybody talks about work-life balance. Sure, you should take time off and take care of yourself or else you’ll have burnout, but believe me when I tell you you will have to work long hours, and weekends too, because owning your own business requires you to do that. It won't last forever but you will for sure be doing this for the first couple of years. Also, working hard does not guarantee anyone success. We all know that your background and privilege play a big role, and I had a bit of luck and really good timing with Plant Circle, but without the hard work, sacrifice, risk-taking, and sticking to my ideals, we would not be where we are now.
I don't have many regrets and I believe that each mistake I made was a great learning opportunity that helped make me a better person and business owner. The only thing I wish I had done differently would probably be taking German classes during the first months of running a business when I still had some time to spare. Due to my lack of German proficiency, I missed out on opportunities of being on national tv et al, which I imagine would have brought us to much wider audiences at times.
I'm a doer and I am not afraid to try something new. If it doesn't work out, or if it's not for me, I quickly move on. I believe this has been a blessing in this business. Being afraid of making decisions, or being paralyzed by the thought of failure, can be crippling for a business. Just do it and take whatever comes. Failure is part of the business and it's inevitable. You’ll have your greatest learning moments during what will feel like your greatest fails.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I decided to have our website built on wordpress/woocommerce as it was the most suitable to our needs and the EU law. When you’re in Germany, you know how important it is to follow all the EU regulations as it's very common to be fined for not doing so. To keep up to date with all of this, I have a subscription to a law firm and I couldn't recommend this more!
From the very practical things, I love to use Debitoor and Billbee for tracking sales and issuing invoices. Slack for the internal communication in the company, and Buffer for our Social Media posts. To make our stories on Instagram look like bombs, we use Unfold. We store our photo content on dropbox and it paid off to get the paid version.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My number only podcast that I listen to that inspires me and helps me go is How I built this with Guy Raz. If you don't know it, please do yourself a favor and listen to it! The stories that Guy brings to you on this podcast are incredible and not all have happy endings! I have often wondered whether I should seek an investor or a partner and this podcast helped me understand better what that can mean for my business. Also, listening to all these stories and knowing that you’re not alone with how you feel as a solo founder was very inspiring and helped me go.
I am committed to run a business that doesn't harm our planet and helps to protect the animals and the environment. When I learned about the story of Patagonia from Guy Raz’s podcast I immediately bought the following book: Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard, the Patagonia founder. It serves me as an inspiration and also has a huge impact on how I run the business. I hope one day that Plant Circle will be a part of B corp just like some of the most inspiring businesses on the planet.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
If you want to start a business, a good place to do it is by asking yourself what problems does my business solves? Do you have a competition? If so, what would you do better than them? If you don't, how come? Is there no need for this product or perhaps it was not developed yet? You must know who your customer is and how to reach them. There isn't one that fits all. Just because Instagram worked for me doesn't mean it will work for you. Perhaps your customer doesn't use Instagram but reads magazines or is a regular at farmers' markets. Learn who they are, what they do, and what they like, and then apply this to your marketing efforts.
Start marketing to your target customer, you can worry about expanding at a later stage. Seek advice from people who are also business owners, they’ll be most equipped to support you. Your parents or partner may have some great ideas, but as long as they have never built or run a business, you should take their advice with a grain of salt. It’s really important to filter advice, you will quickly learn that everybody has an opinion and they are not afraid to share it. You need to learn to block the noise out and follow your gut, after all, it’s your business and you do know what’s best for you.
Hire professionals as soon as you can afford it. It's great if you can build a basic website or simple logo, but good design goes a long way. My best-spent money was hiring a professional graphic designer to do our logo, and this happened before I even had a website! Best decision ever.
You must learn to recognize your weaknesses and continue to work on yourself. I'm not saying you need to be good at everything, absolutely not, but you can still work on improving or hire a specialist. If you’re not a designer, instead of spending money on making mediocre packaging for your product, it’s better to hire a professional and have it done well once and for all.
Learn to delegate and don't be afraid to hire people if you can. You can't be the best at everything, and eventually, something has to give. You have to be able to recognize it and delegate whatever you’re not good at to your employees or freelancers. This will help you focus on running your business smoothly!
Branding, branding, branding. Too often I see a great product and off-putting branding. Of course, not everybody will like your concept or packaging, but good design goes a long way and everybody can appreciate that. After all, most of us buy the book by the cover. Make sure that the cover is well put together!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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